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Perry has a score to settle with Valhalla

FRANKLIN — Kenny Perry, a self-described small-town guy who prefers the shadows to the spotlight, is about to step onto one of the grandest stages in international sports: the Ryder Cup.

And he couldn't be more excited about it.

Perry, and fellow Kentuckian J.B. Holmes, will be among the marquee attractions when the 37th Ryder Cup is played on their home turf at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville this week.

"We're going to be like rock-star status. We're going to be like Tiger Woods status," Perry said. "It's going to be huge."

The crowds are going to be huge, too. About 40,000 fans are expected each day. That's more than double the population of the two golfers' hometowns combined.

Perry still lives in Franklin (population 8,000) in Simpson County; Holmes hails from Campbellsville (11,000) in Taylor County.

Perry also provides an intriguing story line in this biennial rivalry between the United States and Europe because of his history at Valhalla and his very public quest to make this Ryder Cup team.

In 1996, cheered on by his home-state fans, he had a chance to win the PGA Championship in Louisville, but lost in a playoff to Mark Brooks.

"I need to get back to Valhalla and close that chapter," Perry said. "There's unfinished business there for me."

The best part of Perry's story, though, is what he did to qualify for this Ryder Cup.

He said his accomplishment still hasn't sunk in, and won't "until I put on the red, white and blue."

At 48, he'll be the oldest player on either 12-man team, and, in a way, the most unlikely participant.

When the year began Perry figured that his goal of playing at Valhalla was "too far out of reach." He wasn't even ranked in the top 100 in the world.

But he scribbled his mission — qualify for the Ryder Cup — on a piece of paper to make it seem more attainable

"And then magic happened," he said.

Not right away.

It took Perry a few months and a couple of stinging disappointments to get his game and his mind right.

In early May he had the 36-hole lead at The Players Championship and was in the final pairing on Sunday, but closed with an 81.

The next week he lost in a playoff with Ryuji Imada at the AT&T Classic when his approach shot hit a tree and ricocheted into the water.

Perry said that was the turning point of his season.

"I read in the paper the next day where (Ryder Cup captain) Paul Azinger said you had to win to make the team. So I set my sights high, and that changed my attitude and thinking for the summer."

In a seven-week span he was the best golfer on the planet. He won three tournaments — the Memorial, Buick and John Deere — and had two other top-10 finishes to earn a trip to Valhalla.

In the midst of Perry's hot streak, Tiger Woods was sidelined for the year with a knee injury, leaving the media searching for stories. They focused on Perry, and roundly criticized him for not trying to qualify for the U.S. Open and for turning down an exemption to the British Open.

He found it amusing.

"I got a chuckle out of it because for 22 years, nobody cared where I went, where I played, what I did," he said.

But nobody was going to rain on Perry's parade to Valhalla, and he is determined to make it a fun week there.

That could be difficult.

The Europeans have beaten the Americans five of the last six times, and are regarded as favorites this year.

By making his quest to make the Ryder Cup so public and by ramping up expectations for himself, Perry knows his reputation is on the line.

"You've got to be careful what you wish for," he said. "I don't know if Cinderella will find the slipper or not ....

"It'll be my legacy, basically. People won't remember my wins; they'll remember how I performed in the Ryder Cup. So I'll have a lot of pressure on me. That doesn't bother me. I've always done well with a lot of pressure."

Perry's wife, Sandy, is proud that he's challenging himself.

"No one's ever successful not pushing their limits," she said. "If you plod along and do the same thing every day, you get nowhere. You've got to be willing to take risks.

"Kenny is going to take his shot, and win or lose, at least he accomplished his goal and got there."

Perry learned to take his shot when he was a kid playing against his father, Ken, who was a scratch golfer at Franklin Country Club when his son took up the game.

"I saw how competitive Kenny was in his early years when he started trying to beat me," Ken said. "One day we were going to the 18th hole and I had him one shot down when he was 13.

"I saw the potential and drive he had, so I looked at him and said, 'I'm gonna beat you till I'm 95 years old.'

"Tears were running down his cheeks, so I guess I was a little rough on him."

But a lesson was learned.

After Perry lost the playoff to Brooks at the 1996 PGA, he knew how to handle it.

"There's only two ways to take a loss like that," he said. "You can either sulk about it, and dry up and go away. Or you can make it burn in your gut a little bit and make you stronger.

"It made me a tougher person mentally and physically, and I always carry that with me."

Perry will need it to withstand the suffocating pressure at Valhalla this week.

He was on the 2004 Ryder Cup team, but he called that experience a "total disappointment." He played in only two matches, and felt helpless as Europe won in a rout at Oakland Hills.

At Valhalla, he hopes to take a leading role in helping the United States win back the Cup, and he's braced for the challenge.

"It's going to be the ultimate test," he said. "It's going to be intense. I'm going to feel every emotion there is. I'll probably be happy, sad, upset, disappointed, exhilarated."

But if he and his teammates can win, the small-town guy who prefers the shadows to the spotlight will giddily celebrate as the whole world watches.